That Sister Souljah moment

by John MacBeath Watkins

This morning I listened to a Democratic congressman passionately denouncing President Obama's "cave" on not letting the Bush tax breaks for the rich expire.

My first thought was, where was this passion before the election? Obama favored a vote on the issue back in September, but Congress balked.

My second thought was, this is Obama's Sister Souljah moment.

Sister Souljah is an African American hip-hop MC and political activist who during the 1992 presidential campaign was quoted as saying, "If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill White people?"

Bill Clinton, in a speech to a predominantly African American audience, condemned the statement, saying that if the words black and white were reverse, "you might think David Duke was giving that speech."

That was the moment at which most political observers say Clinton captured the middle in his campaign for the presidency. Much like chess, political campaigns are usually won by the candidate who captures the middle.

The more I look at the deal Obama struck with the Republicans, the more it looks like he pulled a rabbit out of a hat. The deal provides billions of dollars in stimulus at a time when the economic recovery is looking stalled, extends unemployment benefits without the cuts in stimulus money the Republicans had been demanding, and exposes the hypocrisy of the Republicans on deficit reduction.

It also shows Obama willing to compromise with the opposition, undermining the Republican narrative that Obama is an extremist.

But what makes this his "Sister Souljah moment" is the liberal opposition to it. I'm sure the President would prefer that his party's congressional delegation had recognized the benefits of the deal and swallowed their revulsion for the extension of the Bush tax cuts to the rich, but he actually benefits with independent voters because this liberal opposition highlights the pragmatic willingness to work with the opposition that he campaigned on.

He may have been trying for this moment when he attacked "purists," but only opposition from the liberal wing of his own party could secure his bonafides as a centrist willing to take a pragmatic approach to the nation's problems.

And as the parties have become more polarized, the ranks of the indepent voters have swelled. My take is that these voters are no more liberal or conservative than they were before, they are simply reacting to increasingly ideological parties by abandoning the parties. They want Washington to work, and to represent the people who voted for them, not the think tanks and pundits who drive the ideology.

The results of the last two elections show that voters are pragmatic. If the economy sucks, vote out the incumbents. If it keeps sucking, vote out the new incumbents. Repeat until you find someone who can play this game.

A little more patience might give one approach or another a chance to work, but you can appreciate the logic.